Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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1497 words
SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010

A Democracy of Ghosts

John Griswold

Prochnow pulled O’Rourke’s limp hand out of the way, slipped his own finger into the trigger guard, sighted past O’Rourke’s soft right cheek and fired. The smaller man out on the road fell. The big man with him looked into the mine property at O’Rourke, bent to grab the Enfield and jumped off the road.

Prochnow let O’Rourke go and ducked behind a boxcar, doubled over with laughter. “You did it, Ethel!” he crowed. His face flushed scarlet from laughing at his prank.

Bullets began thumping into the camp, and men dropped what they were doing to take cover behind buildings and stacks of railroad ties or under the boxcars. The Pinkertons shot at the woods and low hills, but they fired blindly. With no cover they were forced to withdraw to the center of the mine property.

O’Rourke dragged the Winchester under a boxcar with him. He found Tom Meadows, the assistant mine supervisor, there.

Meadows said, “Did you shoot somebody, O’Rourke? What the hell do you have a gun for anyway?” He didn’t wait for an answer and low-crawled down the tracks toward the office.

O’Rourke said loudly enough that he hoped Meadows could still hear, “Prochnow, you’ve killed us all!”

Prochnow giggled, pointing directly into O’Rourke’s drained face. “Dumbass,” he said.


“You’re going to remember that the rest of your life. That’s something you’ll be hiding in your lock box ’til the day you die.”

“What did you do that for?”

“I didn’t do it. You did.”

O’Rourke willed himself flat. The guns roared nearby and popped from afar.

Then something happened to him, sudden and violent. His air was gone and he was shocked and hurt; only after he began to recover did he understand that the earth herself had kicked him breathless, and it took more time to understand there had been an explosion. He was alive, unhurt, and terrified that there were more things in store that he couldn’t imagine.

“Oh my god jesus christ help me,” O’Rourke cried. He lay for a very long time under the boxcar as bullets punctured its steel sides and ricocheted like trapped ball bearings overhead.

“Prochnow,” O’Rourke cried.

“Holding that weapon,” Prochnow answered. “Being guided by something more powerful and true than you’ll ever know again.”

When O’Rourke looked at him in fear and confusion, Prochnow busted up laughing. The derision brought O’Rourke back momentarily.

“What are you, shell-shocked?” he said.

“Pain builds character. Remember that.”

“Who gave you the right? Whoever told you you could do things like that?”

“These waking dreams,” Prochnow said. “Faces out of the past. Places I never been. It’s beautiful, Ethel.”

O’Rourke shook his head in despair and turned away.

“Here, no, wait, I’m being serious,” Prochnow said. “I’ll be serious. Seriously. Listen, forget about those bullets, okay? Really. Forget it. They can’t shoot us down here, and they’re not going to rush us as long as we’ve got ammunition. Relax for a minute. Let me tell you the biggest thing in my own life, and then you’ll understand why you needed all this to happen. Nothing else has ever come close to its intensity, and that’s why I keep it with me all the time and never told anybody until now. Do you want to hear it?

Listen to me,” he threatened. “Okay. I was in the Eighty-First Division in France. Right? I told you that.”

O’Rourke leaned in, eager for an explanation if only Prochnow would give it quickly.

“We had marched for days, and this on top of fighting for the town of Champillon. Our supply lines hadn’t caught up, and the German army had already foraged everything there was to eat. So we were starving, see.

“Wait. I’m not telling it right. You need to help me, like you did with the letter, remember? Tell about whole armies, busted and blown-up, clothes rotting off their bodies, walking wounded and diseased and starving. Staggering around the countryside, and us just a small part of that chaos. My platoon collapsed in some grass next to a road, and it didn’t look like we’d be getting up. Done. We were done. Suddenly this flatbed truck coasted down from a grove of trees on a hill, and there wasn’t anyone in it but an old farmer, and nothing on the bed but a barrel standing on end, tied down with ropes. The old man pulled up to our position. He could have had a bomb in that thing and set it off before we could have moved, we were so tired. We just watched with our rifles pointed in his general direction. He very slowly got out of the cab, stretched a little like it was another day at work, then climbed up on the back of his truck. He pulled the lid off that hogshead and set it down next to him.

“We didn’t know what the hell he had. Could have been anything. See? And I bet you can’t guess. He reached in and started tossing apples down to us. Imagine it. Apples as scarlet-red as cocks’ combs and shined up like every person in his village had taken turns rubbing them on their shirts. My god: apples falling like stars from the rough hands of a filthy Frog farmer on the back of a Ford in the middle of that war. I’ll never forget that.”

O’Rourke stared, waiting, but Prochnow seemed to have left him to live in that other moment. “So what are you telling me?” he interrupted jealously.

“I’m not telling you anything. I’m showing you.”

“Showing me what?”

“The most important thing in the world, Ethel.” Prochnow smiled dreamily.

“What, that an army marches on its stomach?”


“That the apple was a sign that the worst was over and you were going to make it?”

“Don’t be stupid. Half of us were killed a few days later at Epernay when German sappers caught us sleeping.”

“So are the apples Garden of Eden apples? You know, fighting your way to them was the price you paid for the knowledge?”

“Nope. Just apple apples. Really shiny ones. A little tart, as I remember.”

“What’s it mean, you simp?” O’Rourke cried. “I can’t stand it how everybody’s always got all the answers but none of it ever makes any sense. I try so hard, but I never understand anything.

Prochnow smiled and blotted his eyes nostalgically.

The union men blew a small earthwork dam that held back water for the mine, hoping to flood the entire property and drive out the scabs, but the retention pond was too far away to do any good. When they could, they rushed in to try to set fire to rail cars, blow up steam shovels, and take over areas of the camp, but each time the mine guards drove them a short ways out and the slow exchange of fire began again. This went on until the light failed and the shooting slowed, and when it was very late, men tried to sleep in shifts. Prochnow told O’Rourke what to do.

“Sit here, Ethel,” he said in a kind, tired voice. “Sit on the edge of this box. Further over. More. More. There. If you fall asleep, you’ll fall off the damn thing and wake up. Okay? If anything moves, shoot it. Remember: you’re a killer now, so you might as well do what you can to save your own life. I have to sleep.”

“I can’t, Prochnow,” O’Rourke said. “I can’t stay awake, I never shot anybody, I can’t do anything. You have to help me.”

“Do something on your own for once, Ethel. Save your own skin, or do some goddamn thing. I got something kicking in here and I need to dope off for a little while, and I mean right now.”

“Nobody in the world acts like you,” O’Rourke whined. “When we get out of here, I’m telling everybody about you. You’re deranged. I’m not to blame for this.”

Prochnow paused, seeming to consider seriously. “The doctors said if I can function it means I’m not sick, just a little run-down.”

He pulled a big evil dagger from his right boot and put the tip under O’Rourke’s nose. There was still more amusement than malice in his tired eyes.

“A war eats everything, like some monster brat. But life goes on so whatever it ate wasn’t worth much to begin with. Not in any sense that matters. We’re free, O’Rourke. Do what the hell you want. If we survive this thing, I’m going to put everything I’ve got into what little holds its value. Like those apples I mentioned. From now on.”

He tilted the blade up, just a little, so the tip went into the cartilage of O’Rourke’s nose.

“Damn, Prochnow, you stuck me!” O’Rourke cried and wiped away blood.

“Well I pulled it right back out again,” Prochnow said. He waved the knife goodbye and padded off toward the cookhouse.

—From the novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, Wordcraft of Oregon (July 2009); reprinted here by author’s permission

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury